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Mead, Elwood

Published onOct 11, 2021
Mead, Elwood

(January 16, 1858 – January 26, 1936)

Quick Facts

Known for his attempts at encouraging resettlement in the West through irrigation efforts, alumnus Mead was lead engineer on the Colorado River Dam.

Elwood Mead grew up on an Indiana farm in the 1860s. When he was not doing chores he spent much of his time reading and playing in the woods along the Ohio River. As he grew older, however, he began to realize that many farmers lived as tenants under the ascendance of a few speculators and large landholders. Mead blamed such class divisions on what he considered to be the government’s hands-off approach to land settlement, and he spent much of his life promoting a greater federal role in the dispersion of the nation’s farmland.1

Mead left his farm home to study agriculture at Purdue University, and after graduating in 1882 he worked for a short while as a mathematics and physics teacher at Colorado State Agricultural College in Fort Collins. In the 1870s Colorado was the center stage for increasing debate over water rights, and it was there Mead first immersed himself in the world of irrigation. Before long, he set his sights on learning more about ways to harness water power for agricultural settlement.2

In 1883 he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University), then returned to Purdue for a masters degree in science the following year. With his new education in tow, Mead worked as an engineering authority, first in Colorado, then in Wyoming, using irrigation as a mechanism for opening new land for settlement in arid regions of the West.3 But his ideas for settlement were not always popular. In 1894 he teamed up with William (Buffalo Bill) Cody, another western colonization advocate, hoping that Cody’s celebrity status would attract settlers to irrigated land along the Shoshone River in Wyoming. The two men convinced New York investors to put up $130,000 for the irrigation project, but few prospective settlers had taken interest on account of the location’s remoteness.4

Despite the failure in Wyoming, Mead remained undeterred in his vision of planned settlements and his experience as an engineering authority had only just begun with his work in the West. He travelled to Australia in 1907 to assist government officials there in creating thirty-two irrigated settlements. The government set aside the acreage, built roads, drew up house plans, and prepared the land. Then, approved settlers made a down payment on the land and farmed with the long-term intention of becoming owners.5

Mead returned from Australia convinced that the same irrigation strategy could work in the United States. In 1917 he helped convince the California state legislature to provide $260,000 for a 10,000-acre settlement project, the first of its kind in the United States. California’s resulting Durham Colony in Butte County ran successfully, at least at first, under the direction of a community manager, with the University of California’s agriculture department assisting in conducting surveys and analyzing soil types. To showcase the colony, Mead wrote Helping Men Own Farms, a definitive work about what Mead saw as the leniency of nineteenth century U.S. land policy, which “kept the public from realizing the enduring needs of rural life” as it “made men restless and migratory.”6 All the while, critics remained skeptical that planned settlements could last, and in the case of Durham, they were correct. Due to settlers’ financial troubles and the farm depression in 1921, the California legislature soon closed its doors on Mead’s ideas.7

Meanwhile, officials in far away places still caught wind of Mead’s efforts. In 1923 he returned to the international stage, travelling to Palestine and advising officials on the feasibility of irrigating the Jordan Valley for agriculture. While Mead saw some hope there for eventual irrigated agriculture, he largely advised only limited additional settlement on the account of the region’s economic instability. Authorities in Palestine continued to seek Mead’s expertise, but the aging engineer, by this time in his late sixties, turned to primarily to his duties as commissioner of the Reclamation Bureau, which was putting together elaborate plans for a new dam along the Colorado River.8

Mead in 1928. Source:

The Reclamation Bureau’s purpose was to reclaim arid lands for settlement by directing the nation’s water resources through canals and dams. Along the Colorado River, in what is known as the Imperial Valley, settlers endured either devastating floods or extreme droughts in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Mead and other irrigation experts believed that a massive dam along the Colorado River could conquer the river’s flow through flood control and water storage. His bureau drew up a proposal calling for $48,866,254 for the dam’s construction, the largest federal appropriation the nation had seen.9 Over a period of five years beginning in 1931, Six Companies Inc., a conglomeration of six construction firms numbering 4,500 employees, worked tirelessly on the dam, completing it two years ahead of schedule under Mead’s direction. But the engineer behind it all could not be present when President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a speech at the dam’s dedication. In September 1935 Mead took ill and was confined to a Los Angeles hospital. He died on January 26, 1936, at the age of seventy-eight.10

Lake Mead, formed by the construction of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, was named after Mead.

While Mead’s accomplishments as an engineer are perhaps what he is best known for, his longing for an environmentally sustainable, communitarian approach to farming was the current on which he set all other ideas and efforts afloat. But as one historian noted, “Mead’s communitarian vision died with him,” at least in the way he hoped to achieve it.11 Only in the last few years of his life did Mead see New Deal agencies like the Division of Subsistence Homestead and the Resettlement Administration try their hands at funding community settlements, but opposition remained strong even through the Great Depression. Successful or not, Elwood Mead fueled the debate over the evolving level of state and federal involvement in U.S. agriculture.12

Selected Sources

Bronner, Robert E. “Elwood Mead, Buffalo Bill Cody, & the Carey Act in Wyoming,” in Montana, the Magazine of Western History. 55 (Spring, 2005): 36-51.

Conkin, Paul K. Tomorrow A New World: The New Deal Community Program. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1959.

Hiltzik, Michael. Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century. New York: Free Press, 2010.

Kluger, James R. Turning on Water with a Shovel: The Career of Elwood Mead. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.

Mead, Elwood. Helping Men Own Farms: A Practical Discussion of Government Aid in Land Settlement. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1920.

Rook, Robert E. “An American in Palestine: Elwood Mead and Zionist Water Resource Planning, 1923-1936,” in Arab Studies Quarterly. 22 (Winter 2000): 71-89.

Stoll, Steven. Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2002.

Wilbur, Ray Lyman and Elwood Mead. The Construction of Hoover Dam: Preliminary Investigations, Design of Dam, and Progress of Construction. Washington: United States Printing Office, 1933.

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